The Train Doesn’t Get There from Here

9 Feb

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

Being the self-proclaimed “foodie” that I am, one of the pilgrimages I always wanted to take was to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (population 715). It’s the one and only place in the entire world where Roquefort cheese is lovingly created.

Roquefort cheese is one of those famed French products that holds a special place in my memory. That creamy, buttery, tangy, spreadable, crumbly, blue-type cheese. . .some vaguely sweet, some overly pungent, some with tiny, crunchy mold veins.

I can remember gorging myself on Roquefort and little melba-toast-like Heudebert biscottes when at university gatherings, my fellow students didn’t quite know what to make of it. I felt the need to, ahem, properly show my appreciation.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the holy grail of cheese.

11 years ago when I lived in France, Roquefort was one of the distinguished French imports on which the US government decided to place luxury taxes.

Strangely not-so-well-heard-of in average American circles, it goes something like this: farmer-activist José Bové wanted to bring awareness to the US hormone-treated beef industry, so he organized a series of French farmer demonstrations – including covering a McDonald’s in truckloads of apples.

The EU decided to ban the importation of hormone-treated beef. In turn, the US government imposed special “luxury taxes” on several French products, including Roquefort cheese. (José Bové was a sheep farmer in the region around Roquefort.)

It was a fun time – I remember camping and attending a (I would call it more “global awareness” than “anti-American”) rock concert/demonstration in Millau during the protests and trial.  

Read about Bové – admittedly a bit extreme in his actions, but he’s a folk hero, an interesting political figure, and has gone to jail for your nutritional well-being. (You may also note that the French Wikipedia version is about twice as long.)

L’atelier of the Vieux Berger, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Back to the cheese. . .

It’s pretty hard to get to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon by train, or even by bus. I mean, at least for the budget traveler under the age of 60 who has no interest in taking a group tour. It’d involve about 5 hours travel time and an overnight stay.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is a tiny village in an agricultural region, and you’ve really need a car to make the most of your trip.

There’s only a few producers of the cheese. Each (of the artisanal producers) has it’s own special bread – baked once a year from which to get it’s mold. Each has their own special mold starter, set of caves where they age the cheese, and milk producers. The producers are hard to get to on foot, and then, you still have to haul your cheese home.

To be expected in a village of 715, I guess. In short, it’s pretty special stuff.

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

I finally made it. Better yet, imagine my delight when my good friend decided to actually buy a half-round of you’ll-only-find-it-here, not-to-be-found-in-any-store Vieux Berger cheese – and then allowed me to be the first to slice into it!

It was a transcendental experience. It felt as though someone had plopped a gorgeous, untouched, just-baked wedding cake in front of me and told me – and me alone – to slice it & take a bite. It’s just something you never do!

The image of her tiny, French-sized fridge holding a half-round of Roquefort, bathed in the artificial halo of the fridge lamp on the top shelf will be one of my favorite memories of all time.

Pavé de l’Aveyron, from Roquefort.

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